Russia in transition—1: conditional freedoms

It’s always best to have work to do when you visit a new city or a new country. Being a tourist is too often an embarrassment; you look tentative, you don’t know where you’re going, you stick out. Being there to do a job lets you move with a different rhythm. You can slip yourself into the routine of things, you’re part of the scenery. You get a different, perhaps more authentic perspective on the place. Access helps. The overlap between my coverage of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet tour and my research and interviews for my work on the biography of Vinogradov made the trip particularly opportune. It was through the access that these ballet connections gave me that I came closest to encountering the Russia of my expectations, the Russia I had dreamed of since my schooldays.

It wasn’t always a Russia that the ordinary tourist would encounter. Doors were opened that might normally be closed. Sometimes history came unexpectedly alive. When I visited the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to conduct interviews about Vinogradov’s connections with the Bolshoi company, for instance, I was invited by Sophia Golovkina, the director of the Bolshoi Theatre school, to return the following day to watch the rehearsal for the end-of-year recital by the cream of the school’s students.

When I arrived for the recital I was ushered into the theatre building via the administration’s side door. The atmosphere in the theatre was workaday. Draped white sheets protected the ornate gold decorations on the balconies. But it didn’t matter. The young graduates filled the historic stage with a three-hour extravaganza of the technical brilliance, flair and panache that exemplified the Bolshoi heritage and had been so spectacularly personified to the world by one of the greatest of all legends of Russian ballet, Galina Ulanova.

As I was leaving I was astonished and delighted to encounter on the stairwell Ulanova herself. Like me, she had been casting an eye over the newcomers. Introductions were made; she was 80 by then, her mind quick, her smile bright. She touched my hand; she hoped my work would go well. As for herself, yes, she was still doing some coaching, passing along the torch. It was a brief encounter, but it stayed with me because her presence seemed to symbolize the process that had just been taking place inside the auditorium, the continuation of the line.


It didn’t take long to realize that the freedom of which Gorbachev was so proud was a relative term.

On the surface it certainly seemed to apply. I moved freely about the cities we visited, using all forms of transport, meeting people of all ranks and social levels, often in their homes. Outside a government office in Kiev I became caught up in a demonstration on behalf of Ukrainian nationalism, one of the first to give on-the-street voice to the swelling movement for more representation and greater recognition of the Ukrainian language. Standing at first at the edge of the crowd, photographing the speakers and their colourful Ukrainian flags—only very recently allowed on public display—I was gradually pushed toward the front. Soon I was talking politics with the demonstration leaders, surrounded by a curious and smiling throng. Eventually we parted with much mutual admiration and shaking of hands. The men with their night-sticks and the plainclothes surveillance team that I’d earlier seen unload from a police van looked on but did nothing. No one appeared to follow me to my hotel. My film came safely home with me. My notebooks remained intact. Clearly, things were changing.

And in Moscow, in a masterstroke of image-rebuilding they had begun to offer tours of the Lubyanka, the grim headquarters of the KGB. On my visit I picked up a booklet called The KGB Must Abide by the Interests of the People in which the KGB chairman declared that his ambition was to create “a worldwide image of the KGB which would be in line with the noble aims which I believe we pursue.”

Well, yes. But then there was—even now, in the age of glasnost and perestroika—the small matter of the bugging of hotel rooms. One member of the RWB group, tired of having a non-working TV in his hotel room, said loudly to the walls one morning: “Boy, I wish I had a TV set that worked.” That evening he returned to find a technician repairing the malfunctioning set. Coincidence? Maybe. So that evening he asked for that rarity of rarities in Russia, soft toilet tissue. The following morning, there it was in his bathroom. And in Leningrad, where the hotel tap water was so bad they didn’t even recommend if for showering, a Canadian phoning home told her boyfriend she wished she had some bottled water in her room so she could clean her teeth. The next day a case of it appeared beside her bed.

Surveillance aside, we quickly learned the principles on which hotel life depended. The principle, for instance, of the little gift. The sweetener. Nothing so coarse as a bribe. Merely a token of your appreciation of the improved likelihood of things being done—your laundry, for instance, or the booking, two days hence, of a telephone call home. Before I left Vancouver I visited the little shop by the harbour where all the Russian sailors bought their take-home souvenirs and stocked up on cheap things to give away—pens with calendar-clocks in them, credit-card calculators, bubblegum, cosmetics sets, queen-size pantyhose, soap, Marlboros. A dancer in the company took with him fifty condoms to use for barter (they were said to be scarcer than sugar). I also carried a bundle of single U.S. dollar bills. They worked wonders.

In Moscow I came back from breakfast one day to find my room already made up. Surprised and grateful (some members of the group didn’t get their rooms made up all week) I gave the ancient chambermaid a dollar. She was so overjoyed she gave me a big, gap-toothed kiss and hurried back into my room to remake the bed, this time with fresh sheets. In Leningrad I gave the floor-lady a dollar when I handed in my laundry and in return I got back double—my own laundry plus six shirts I’d never seen before.

Inequalities extended to every facet of life. It was common for workers and their families to stand in line for hours for their daily milk and sausage. In Leningrad, where the ordinary citizen could expect to buy bananas for just two weeks each fall, shortages were so bad that people were giving blood in exchange for shopping privileges—one unit of blood earned you the right to line up for five or six hours to buy something really scarce, such as West German tights or Italian shoes.

The daily line-up


In a watch shop within sight of the Hermitage museum there were so few timepieces for sale that a black marketeer had slipped inside the door and was offering watches from his wrist for hard currency. In a toyshop on Nevsky Prospekt, searching for souvenirs, I jostled the crowd to get a chance to examine the few sorry objects on display, then realized how basically unfair it would be to use Western money-muscle to deprive the locals of the chance to buy what few small pleasures they might be able to give to their kids. Yet diplomats, western journalists and those in high party favour had access to credit-card import stores that were stocked with overflowing displays of everything that was commonplace in the West—fresh fruit, vegetables, frozen pizza, all of it imported from Finland and Switzerland. Entering those stores was like going to another world. Like going home.

In the streets, people with ancient weighing machines told your weight for a few kopecks. Babushkas in headscarves sold unroasted peanuts and leafy cabbages at makeshift stands. Old men, in from the country, proffered bunches of lilac or lily-of-the-valley. Petty theft was rampant, and you could always tell when it was going to rain—drivers stopped their cars and installed their windshield wipers. When they were through driving for the day they removed the wipers and their wing-mirrors and took them indoors for safe keeping.

Everyone on the street wanted dollars. I was stopped frequently by people offering to exchange my American cash—usually politely, but not always. Strolling alone in Kiev late one night I wasn’t able to convince one money-merchant that I really wasn’t interested in unloading my dollars, and eventually passers-by had to warn him off.

The locals were prepared to pay high prices for the dollar for two reasons. With dollars they could get Western friends to go to the hard-currency stores and buy for them the consumer goods that never came on the open Soviet market—tape machines, sound systems, cameras, imported food. They could also save their dollars for when they went abroad. Tight restrictions on currency export and high rates of exchange meant that having a stock of extra foreign cash made sense. In Kiev Japanese cars bought second-hand in Japan after serving as taxis were highly desirable status symbols. For Westerners, however, it was illegal to spent hard currency anywhere except at the official government shops. You were expected to provide proof of purchase for anything you took out of the country, and the list of forbidden exports was long—including chocolate, underwear, umbrellas and spare umbrella parts.

When I asked a Russian friend how Soviet citizens spent their leisure time, she laughed. “We stand in line,” she said. “That takes us hours every day, just to buy the necessities of life. Then we cook. Then we do our housework, which takes more hours, because we have no labour-saving devices like you in the West. By the time we’ve finished that it’s time to go to sleep. Then we work. Then we stand in line again. So what do you mean exactly about leisure time?”

The lines she talked about were everywhere—for milk, vegetables, shoes, beer. If you heard about something suddenly becoming available you would rush out and get in line to buy it, because it almost certainly wouldn’t be there the following day. You never left your apartment without a shopping bag in your pocket or your purse. Alla Savchenko, the ballet mistress of the RWB, had not been in Moscow, where she grew up, since emigrating to Canada with her husband almost a decade before. Much of her time during the visit was taken up caring for her sick mother, spending hours scouring the city for scarce medicines and lining up to buy food. “Everything seems devastated,” she told me. “This used to be a very clean city. Now it is dirty, and no one does anything about it. I see no direction. It’s like people playing at democracy. They don’t know how to do it. I feel terrible pity.”

Once you got inside the shops, the simplest of transactions took an age—line up to pick out what you want, line up again at the cashier to pay for it (the calculations almost invariably done on an abacus), line up again to collect it from the surly and uncooperative sales assistants. They were surly because they didn’t need to be anything else. Under the state employment system it was virtually impossible to get fired or get promoted simply on the basis of work done; you were paid the same amount regardless. You were promoted according to your connections, not your skill, and once you were installed the only thing that could get you fired (and I saw it happen twice, both times to musicians in the ballet company’s pick-up orchestra) was if your chronic alcoholism got in the way of the adequate performance of your work.

“We work without enthusiasm and without proper financial reward,” said my friend Volodya. “Our work gives us only occupied time. When nobody needs what you do it destroys your will to work. So people sit, drink coffee, talk. Why bother?”

The day after authorities announced food prices were to triple—part of Gorbachev’s push for a modified form of market economy—I sat with the brother of my Vancouver Russian coach in his dark, cluttered apartment overlooking Moscow University and watched Gorbachev make a live TV plea for calm. My friend, who had spent his life studying the history of the Soviet Union, listened intently for about 20 minutes, then shook his head sadly and turned off the set. “Just words,” he said. “The people need more than words. Many feel they have been patient long enough. The programs are not working. After five years there is still nothing in the shops.”


Children, though, seemed cherished everywhere. On a crowded bus on Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad I saw a man stand to give his seat to a woman. She lifted her little boy onto the seat and remained standing herself. Many of the kids still wore Pioneer hats and neckerchiefs—Pioneer camp, where they were instilled with Party principles, took up a month of their annual vacation every year from the age of eight or so—and it was clear that they were seen as the country’s future. But that wasn’t much comfort to one young woman I talked to. “We don’t know what we eat,” she said. “We don’t know what we breathe. Our children are dying without explanation. I want a child, but I can’t have one here. What can I do?”

In a country supposedly founded on a basic belief in the rights and values of the proletariat, I found a cynical contempt for the workers and the lower classes among intellectuals and those with power and influence. At a party in Moscow I got into conversation with a cheery young auto mechanic. “I mend the metal on cars,” he told me. “I get 180 roubles a month, though I can get the same amount in a single day on the side.” He was a boisterous lad and soon challenged me to eat a head of pickled garlic. I did so and we toasted each other in a round of vodka. The people who had taken me to the party—nice, middle-class, hard-working Russians—were horrified. “He’s nothing,” said one of them, “He’s just a worker.”

At the same party, one of the men got drunk and began to pester me about setting up some kind of joint-venture computer import business, with me supplying the hardware and him selling it. The same friend who had bad-mouthed the car mechanic tore the man’s address out of my notebook and told me to ignore him. “He’s just a drunk,” he said. “We apologize.” Understandably, this incensed his plump, pretty wife. “He may be a drunk,” she said tearfully, “but he’s my man.” It was the sort of thing you might hear toward the end of any party anywhere—except that this was the new Russia, where, even so long after Orwell, some people were still more equal than others.


Moscow was its own fascination. No one really knows how Moscow began, but the story people seem to like best is this: sometime in 1147 (and we must give or take several weeks, to make allowances for the Julian/Gregorian discrepancies) the Vladimir-Suzdal Prince Yuri Dolgoruky (his name means the Long-Armed: he was an adept tax-collector) was visiting the south-western borders of the segment of Kievan Rus that he controlled.

Perhaps he was in an expansive mood. Perhaps the tax returns had been good. Perhaps he wanted to impress his courtiers, or put stars in the eyes of a local maiden. Whatever the reason, he decided to hold a feast at a small village located on top of a convenient nearby hill. It was probably summer. Below the hill a winding river flowed. Before him, as far as he could see, undulated a green and wooded land. Here (perhaps the welcoming celebrations had been particularly hearty) he decided he would build a fortress: a Kievan Prince’s realm could always use a little more fortification. The wooden stockade on Borovitsky Hill was completed within a decade; it was the kernel out of which Moscow grew. That’s the story, anyway.

If the spirit of Yuri Dolgoruky were to be climbing Borovitsky Hill from the south today, up past the festive turbans of St. Basil’s cathedral and into the vastness of Red Square (60,000 square metres of cobblestone, and couldn’t that battered, trampled, tank-tracked expanse tell stories?), he would find the wooden walls of his fortress replaced by high, red-brick ramparts. The word impregnable suits them well; these steep, thick walls  form a roughly triangular structure whose sides add up to almost a mile in length, punctuated by 19 towers, four of which crown imposing entrances to the grounds inside.

The Kremlin! Yuri Dolgoruky would not recognize the grounds inside nor any of their structures. It is the black hole of Russian history: into it have been sucked, in numbers beyond counting, the tangled strands of incident and accident that connect it to all the anguish and atrocity, all the intellect and inspiration, that have stained and marked this country’s story. Its squares and churches ring with history’s blare and shine. The strange electric immediacy of pomp and power, of tyranny and triumph, tingles the visitor’s skin. You barely know where to look, hardly dare to lift your eye to so much majestic savagery. Despots, rulers, artists, priests … the air is crowded with damned, departed souls, and not just the air. The cathedrals (for this was also the headquarters of the Russian church) shelter the lead-shrouded mortal remains of centuries of Muscovy’s rulers and archbishops. In those brick-clad ramparts are stored the ashes of Soviet heroes. In his own walk-in sarcophagus up against the wall (a granite block which would be the more imposing were it not dwarfed by the ramparts above it) lies the mummified Lenin, orange-peach his colouring, waxen his look, spotted his tie.

When I visited him in 1992 those charged with his preservation were doing a check-up twice a week. Every 18 months or so he was given a prolonged dip in a preservative bath of potassium, glycerine and alcohol. But despite everyone’s best efforts the body had been shrinking slowly. Nor was he as revered as once he was. The budget for the preservation of his remains had recently been cut by 80 per cent (the embalmers had quickly found new clients among the bereaved associates of murdered mafiosi, who wanted to be sure their nearest and dearest looked their best in their open funeral caskets). Boris Yeltsin and others were said to have put forward proposals (later squelched by Putin) to send him off to earn his keep on a display trip around the world (Beyond The Finland Station: The Lenin Tour, as it might be) prior to burial beside his dear old mum in St. Petersburg. The corpse of the father of Soviet Russia, co-opted to raise capitalist dollars to shore up the post-Soviet economic collapse. Who’d have predicted that for irony when they first brought him down?

But then, who’d have predicted so much that has happened in this massive redoubt? Napoleon used icons from the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral as firewood to steam off his boots in the dreadful winter of 1812. Not many yards away, in the Armoury, you can inspect the sleigh that brought Elizabeth here in 1741 from St. Petersburg for her coronation (800 horses drew it, in teams of 23: a cold coming they had of it, and who knows how many didn’t survive, animals and drivers both). Here behold her bejewelled coronation dress (a woman of conspicuous assumption, clearly: this was only one of 15,000 dresses that she owned).

Cross the ancient square to the Annunciation Cathedral, a seductive agglomeration of small chambers encased in reassuringly thick walls of plaster and brick. Excommunicated Ivan the Terrible (whose sobriquet, in all linguistic accuracy, should be translated as Ivan the Awesome, but who among us is willing to defuse the force of history?), after he had more than used up his quota of permissible wives, regularly took shelter and solace in this church’s shadowy and comforting embrace, watching the services through the iron bars of his own private chapel. Odd, indeed, how comforting this place feels, perhaps as welcoming and reassuring as any place of worship you’ve ever been in. Yet it’s in the fearsome Kremlin. Yes, we know the word means castle or fortress, nothing more, and yes, many Russian cities have them. Yet this one, on the very site that legend says that Dolgoruky chose for his fateful feast day, even now, with the Soviets long gone and yet another new regime established, doesn’t it still cause thrills and chills? Our Western conditioning allows nothing less. Of course it does.

I could have spent hours in the comforting embrace of those thick walls of the Cathedral of the Assumption, or inspecting the pilfered icons and church silverware at the haphazard antiques market in Gorki Park. But it was Leningrad I was waiting for. I wanted to discover the city that I had read so much about, the city that Vinogradov had spoken of so rhapsodically. Moscow was hard-nosed and frown-faced. But Leningrad … this was a different side of Russia. I fell in love with its austere and classical beauties from my first morning walking its streets, and the affair has never ended.


It had been tempting, going into Russia, to see Gorbachev as a hero and his insistence on change as the harbinger of a new era. But what I was left with, after getting a glimpse of the country from the inside, after probing an inch or two beneath the shell of prejudice and misinformation that had accreted over the years, was an overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness.

“For you in the West,” one of my new Russian friends told me, “it all seems all right. But you are wearing pink spectacles.” The woman who wondered how she could have a child in such a situation went further. “The psychology of the Russian people is ugly,” she said. “They like to be similar. ‘I’m poor so you should be poor—if you’re rich I must kill you or burn your property.’ Maybe our grandchildren will live in a new society. But for 70 years, everything was destroyed. It will take at least a hundred years to repair it.”

The dismantling of a system that ruled their every moment had left these people aimless and uncertain. They looked on the promised reforms with great scepticism. Few of them were happy. None of them had a good word for The Party. Even those thoughtful enough to understand that massive social change was not going to happen overnight had serious doubts about Gorbachev’s chances of success. And yet, despite all, you could still perceive—or at least I believed I could—what people persist in calling the soul of Russia, that dark, elemental Russianness we know from the great novelists and playwrights. While the human spirit might be damaged by all the years of oppression, it had never been entirely crushable.

And, looking for that elusive Russian soul, I thought I might finally have located it at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg—not in the vast collection of paintings and sculptures and artwork but in the person of Academician Boris Piotrovsky, the museum’s director. He was 82 when we met in the spring of 1990, just a few months before his death from a cerebral haemorrhage, and had been director for a quarter of a century.

Academician Boris Piotrovsky


It was Piotrovsky who masterminded the preservation of the Hermitage treasures during the Second World War. He sent many of them into storage in Siberia. During the 900-day siege of the city he lived in the museum’s cellars, guarding the works that remained. From his cluttered desk (a desk once used by Peter the Great) he still kept a watchful eye on the collection’s 3.2 million artworks, and one magic night when the museum was closed he took me on a tour of the classically elegant buildings that sprawl along the banks of the Neva to show me his own favourite pieces. “To live here, surrounded by these objects, and to be able to get to know them so well … it has been a wonderful way to spend a life,” he said.


One thought on “Russia in transition—1: conditional freedoms

  1. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a
    colleague who has been doing a little research on this.

    And he actually bought me breakfast due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him…

    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanx for spending time to talk about this subject here on your blog.


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